Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

 

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Quentin Tarantino’s in-joke fantasy of Tinseltown in 1969 is predictably self-indulgent, overlong and occasionally inspired.

   

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

In on the joke: Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Pacino 

  

There’s always plenty to admire in a Tarantino movie. But the director is also a self-indulgent narcissist whose sandbox has got too big for his breeches. With the pick of Hollywood at his bidding, he has delivered a backhand here that takes the mickey and tries the patience. Just how many clips from fabricated TV shows and movies can an audience take?

 

The clue is in the title – it’s a fairy tale. It’s also an allusion to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and, at times, Tarantino exhibits some of the mastery of his hero as he continually riffs off the horse opera. This is a parallel version of Hollywood in 1969, when Burt Reynolds couldn’t break into the big time and Clint Eastwood had made his name on the back of the spaghetti Western. Tarantino himself was named after Quint Asper, the ‘half-breed’ blacksmith Burt Reynolds played in TV’s Gunsmoke, and the film’s protagonist Rick Dalton is partly based on the actor at that time. The year also witnessed one of the most horrific events in the history of Tinseltown, in which the beautiful actress Sharon Tate – the pregnant young wife of Roman Polanski – was a part of.

 

The film itself is a rambling head-trip down memory lane, in which the real and the fictitious rub shoulders in a series of loosely connected vignettes. It’s at once audacious, inventive and self-congratulatory and can only delight those as obsessed by the minutia of the industry as Tarantino obviously is. One can almost picture the director behind the camera rubbing his hands together with glee, and while some scenes work well, others are begging for a sharp pair of scissors. The film runs to two hours, 41 minutes.

 

Actors of varying pedigree pop up in cameos to alleviate the duller moments, a Bombay mix of talents running the gamut from Dakota Fanning and Michael Madsen to Al Pacino and Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen (who, from the nose up, is an uncanny facsimile). Essentially, though, the film is a double-act featuring Leonardo DiCaprio as waning cowboy star Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt as his stunt double-cum-gofer Cliff Booth, the embodiment of Marlboro Man cool. Both DiCaprio – whose first movie this is since winning the Oscar for The Revenant – and Pitt seem to be enjoying themselves enormously, creating a frisson that for a lot of the time rubs off on the viewer. But there’s still a limit to how often we can watch Brad Pitt wandering around Los Angeles without a shifting of the buttocks.

 

As Sharon Tate, the accomplished Margot Robbie is given little to sink her canines into, other than to look pretty, spin her mini skirt and appear sweetly self-effacing. Her longest scene sees her talk the staff of a Westwood cinema into letting her watch herself – for free – in The Wrecking Crew, with Dean Martin, in which she ogles her own sequences with a simpering self-satisfaction. But if it’s a one-dimensional performance, it’s because Tarantino hasn’t given Robbie anything better to do.

 

Other well-known faces seem to be represented by a procession of mannequins one might find at a backwater waxworks. There is one exceptional sequence, though, featuring Mike Moh as a vainglorious Bruce Lee who meets his match when he comes up against Cliff Booth. But the true shining star of the movie is the nine-year-old Julia Butters as a precocious Method child actress who makes Rick look like the second-rate ham that he is.

 

Ultimately, the film is one big in-joke for cineastes of a comparable vintage to its director, meaning that large swathes of the movie will be lost on the cinema-going public. The 18 certificate should also be noted, as Tarantino remains the auteur of the big-budget shock treatment. Still, there’s plenty to chew over with a crooked grin.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Julia Butters, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Mike Moh, Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Al Pacino, Brenda Vaccaro, Nicholas Hammond, Rafał Zawierucha, Lorenza Izzo, Damon Herriman, Lena Dunham, Madisen Beaty, Mikey Madison, Victoria Pedretti, Scoot McNairy, Clifton Collins Jr, Rumer Willis, Spencer Garrett, Clu Gulager, Martin Kove, Rebecca Gayheart, Kurt Russell, Zoë Bell, Michael Madsen, James Remar, Kate Berlant.

 

Dir Quentin Tarantino, Pro David Heyman, Shannon McIntosh and Quentin Tarantino, Screenplay Quentin Tarantino, Ph Robert Richardson, Pro Des Barbara Ling, Ed Fred Raskin, Costumes Arianne Phillips.

 

Columbia Pictures/Bona Film Group/Heyday Films/Visiona Romantica-Sony Pictures.

161 mins. USA/UK/China. 2019. Rel: 14 August 2019. Cert. 18.